Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Etymology isn’t an exact science. Sometimes, especially with a younger word like gerrymander or neologism, we have a record not only of its first use in print, but of the name of the person who coined it and the event that led to its coinage.
But most etymologies aren’t that clear-cut. Words that have evolved for centuries — that began their linguistic journeys during a time when the written record is sparse — are a more difficult matter. Linguists and etymologists must make inferences based on their knowledge of language change and the unearthing of new written sources. That means that sometimes we don’t know exactly how a word was created, and occasionally we end up with multiple separate, sometimes competing, etymologies.
Take the word ingot, for example. We know from the written historical record that ingot originally described the mold in which metal was cast; later it came to mean a chunk of metal molded into a simple shape to make it easier to weigh and store. Etymologists have come up with two possible etymologies of the word.
Its first is, honestly, boring: It might come from the verb geotan, Old English for “to pour,” with the prefix in- added to it. Since ingot began life as the name of the mold itself, an etymology stemming from words that mean “to pour into” makes perfect sense.
The second possibility is more fun.
French has long had the word lingot to describe ingots or metal slugs. (Lingot comes from the Latin word for “tongue,” possibly because of the shape of Medieval ingots.) It’s possible that the English speakers of half a millennium ago, knowing that the French article le (“the”) is contracted to l’ before a word beginning with a vowel sound, assumed lingot was actually l’ingot, so they dropped the (imagined) article to leave the bare noun ingot — and that’s the word that stuck.
Does it sound far-fetched that an error like this could find a permanent home in the English language? It happens more often than you might think. Linguists even have a name for this type of “permanent error”: metanalysis, a change in the division of a word based on how it sounds. It often happens when a word jumps from one language to another, and English is full of words that are the result of metanalysis. Here are just a few:
- Apron entered English as napron, but a napron was misdivided as an apron.
- Nickname was originally an eke-name — eke in this case meaning “also” or “in addition.”
- Newt, that little lizard, began as an eft, became an ewt,and finally morphed into a newt.
- Cherry comes from misunderstanding the French cerise as plural (i.e., cherries) and then dropping the plural ending.
- The same process that turned cerise into cherry also turned pease into pea.
We may never be completely sure what linguistic winds solidified ingot’s place in the English language. It’s fitting that etymology is not an exact science, though, because the process of creating words isn’t either.
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